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8. Regional Realism   

8. Regional

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Activities: Context Activities

The Human Framed: Anatomy, Photography, and Realism in Nineteenth-Century America

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The Agnew Clinic

[1577] Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic (1889), courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Library, Schoenberg Center.
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Viewing Thomas Eakins's masterful depiction of medical surgery in his painting The Gross Clinic, an art critic writing for the New York Herald in 1876 was both impressed and repelled by its stark realism: "The painting is decidedly unpleasant and sickeningly real in all its gory details, though a startlingly life-like and strong work." Showing the famous surgeon Dr. Samuel David Gross in the midst of an operation, with blood on his hands and an open incision in the patient on the table before him, Eakins's controversial painting has come to be recognized as a masterpiece of uncompromising realism. Like much late-nineteenth-century American literature, American art after the Civil War became increasingly interested in providing viewers with accurate, unromanticized depictions of modern life and the human condition. As The Gross Clinic makes vividly, even brutally, clear, the realists' commitment to depicting physical truth prompted them to paint features and aspects of the human body that had previously seemed outside the boundaries of artistic representation.

Eakins was fascinated by the muscles and mechanisms of the human body. He became interested in anatomy in high school and went on to study the subject extensively at both the Pennsylvania Academy and the Jefferson Medical College, where he regularly dissected corpses. He eventually supplemented his income as an artist by teaching anatomy and dissection. While Eakins admitted that he felt a natural aversion to dissecting human bodies, he saw the task as necessary to his art. As he put it, "One dissects simply to increase his knowledge of how beautiful objects are put together to the end that one might imitate them." Eakins put his extensive knowledge of the workings of the human body to use in all of his paintings, and especially in his series of representations of wrestlers, swimmers, boxers, and rowers in action.

Eakins and other realist painters found the new medium of photography enormously interesting, both because it enabled them to capture split-second moments of human movement and because it could allow them to try out various tableaux for their paintings. In 1885, photographer Eadweard Muybridge revolutionized both photography and the study of human and animal movement with his sequential pictures using stop-action shutters to capture details of motion too quick for the human eye. Originally hired by Leland Stanford, the governor of California, to settle a bet about the nature of a racehorse's gait, Muybridge developed a technique for photographing successive stages of the animal's motion, revealing that at top speed the horse had all four feet off the ground mid-stride. Muybridge continued his photographic investigations at the University of Pennsylvania, where he collaborated with Eakins, who was also interested in photographing motion. He soon published Animal Locomotion, an eleven-volume collection of over 100,000 photographs of humans and animals running, climbing, and jumping which he intended to function as a kind of dictionary of bodily movement.

The realists' passion for uncompromising analyses and representations of the human body did not always meet with public approval. Photographs and paintings that struck viewers as too "graphic"--like Eakins's Gross Clinic--came in for harsh criticism. Eakins eventually lost his position at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts because he insisted that his students, both male and female, view nude human models in order to better understand the human body. The realists' unconventional openness toward the body and all of its features may have flown in the face of traditional American beliefs about propriety and respectability, but it succeeded in transforming the face of American art and culture. These late-nineteenth-century photographers and painters created the technology that soon led to the development of the motion picture camera, and they pioneered an aesthetic of truth and realism that had a profound and lasting effect on American art.

Unfortunately, nineteenth-century Americans' interest in the scientific study of the human form could also lead in dangerous directions when it was used to justify racism and prejudice. The late part of the century saw a new vogue for "phrenology," the pseudo-scientific study of facial features based on the premise that external appearance is a reliable indicator of internal character. Phrenology, which had been popular in the eighteenth century, was resurrected in the last decades of the nineteenth century when immigration was changing the complexion and features of the American face. Proponents of "racial purity" worried that the hundreds of thousands of non-Northern European immigrants who were arriving yearly (Italians, Greeks, Eastern European Jews, Chinese, and others) would contaminate or weaken the American body. Commentators like Joseph Simms devised racist charts and diagrams designed to "scientifically" classify racial facial characteristics on the basis of intelligence, sensitivity, creativity, and morality. Simms's book, Physiognomy Illustrated; or, Nature's Revelations of Character: A Description of the Mental, Moral, and Volitive Dispositions of Mankind, as Manifested in the Human Form and Countenance, predictably argued for the superiority of Caucasian facial features. Such distortions of the spirit and integrity of scientific inquiry were a tragic corollary to the nineteenth-century commitment to studying the human form.

  1. Comprehension: What kinds of subjects did realist painters like Thomas Eakins favor? What did they want their paintings to accomplish? What kinds of values are reflected in their work?

  2. Context: What is happening in the operating theater in Eakins's painting The Agnew Clinic? How does Eakins portray Dr. Agnew? What actions do his assistants perform? What parts of the patient are visible? Who do you think the woman is seated on the right? What is her role in the picture?

  3. Context: Some Native American participants in the Ghost Dance religion came to believe that their spiritual practices would render their clothing impermeable to bullets. What kinds of views about the human body inform their beliefs? How does the Ghost Dancers'understanding of the relationship between the spirit and the body compare to Euro-American realists' understanding of physicality?

  4. Exploration: If Eakins and Muybridge were alive today, what kinds of modern technology do you think would most interest them? Why?

[1577] Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic (1889),
courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Library, Schoenberg Center.
In this masterpiece of realist art, professor of surgery David Agnew lectures to a group of medical students while operating. As the Enlightenment overshadowed Calvinism in the nineteenth century, Americans put more faith in science. However, the seminars and clinics of higher education were reserved for male elites.

[3228] Timothy O'Sullivan, Incidents of the War. A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July 1863,
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-B8184-7964-A DLC].
Federal soldiers lie dead on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Lincoln's speech commemorating the dead confirms that ending slavery was a northern war aim. Graphic, bleak war photographs such as this one inspired postwar literary realism.

[3230] Anonymous, Confederate and Union dead side by side in trenches at Fort Mahone (1865),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-B8171-3181].
Civil War photograph of the aftermath of the siege of Petersburg, depicting the body of a Confederate soldier lying a few feet away from the body of a Union soldier.

[3889] Thomas Eakins, The Swimming Hole (1884),
courtesy of the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
The homosocial nature of nineteenth-century male relations is reflected in this painting, which shows a group of students swimming while their headmaster (Eakins) swims nearby.

[5758] Thomas Eakins's "Naked series"--old man, seven photographs (c. 1880),
courtesy of the Getty Museum.
The model in these photographs looks strikingly like Walt Whitman. Debate continues as to whether or not the image is indeed that of the poet "undisguised and naked."

[6551] Kenyon Cox, Columbia & Cuba--Magazine Cover--Nude Study (1898),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-68463].
An allegorical cover of an 1898 magazine, exemplifying the openness toward the human body of the late-nineteenth-century realists. The names of the women, "Columbia" and "Cuba," refer to an imagined relationship between the nations during the Spanish American War.

[8244] Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion (c. 1887),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-103037].
Muybridge's innovative photographic techniques revolutionized the study of animal and human movement.

[8245] Eadweard Muybridge, The Zoopraxiscope--A Couple Waltzing (c. 1893),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-7690].
Known as "the father of the motion picture," Muybridge invented the zoopraxiscope, which projected a moving image from still sequences, such as this couple dancing.

[8251] Pendelton's Lithography, Dr. Spurzheim--Divisions of the Organs of Phrenology Marked Externally (1834),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4556].
The pseudo-science of phrenology was revived in the late nineteenth century and was often used to provide a "factual" basis for racism.

[8252] Anonymous, The Symbolical Head, Illustrating all the Phrenological Developments of the Human Head (1842),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-100747].
The late nineteenth century saw a renewed interest in phrenology, the study of facial features as indicators of qualities such as intelligence, creativity, and morality. Most late-nineteenth-century phrenological studies purported to prove that Caucasian features were superior.

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